An audit of the 2022 primary election in Utah found small discrepancies between the number of ballots cast and the number of votes counted in some counties.
And the Office of Legislative Auditor General recommends the state undertake a public reconciliation of ballots going forward.
Nine counties reported a total of 854 more votes than ballots processed in the statewide voter database, while 13 counties reported 1,031 more ballots processed than votes.
Those were among the findings in a 134-page audit of Utah’s election system released Tuesday.
The Legislative Audit Subcommittee requested the audit last December to provide assurance that the state’s election system continues to be fair and secure. Specifically, the auditor general’s office was asked to look at election processes, the accuracy of voter rolls and ballot security.
“On one hand we want to make it clear that our findings are meaningful and useful. We found areas for improvement. On the other hand, we do not want to give the impression that the sky is falling because it definitely is not,” Jake Dinsdale, audit supervisor, told the committee in a hearing Tuesday.
In October 2021, a now former Republican state lawmaker called for an Arizona-style election audit of the state’s 2020 election results. Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, both Republicans, expressed frustration over misinformation about the Utah election and said there was “absolutely” no evidence of fraud in the state.
Henderson, who oversees elections in the state, has said counties have worked hard to improve the election system, increase transparency and be open to any and all questions about the system. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll after the November general election found more than 87% of voters believe it was conducted fairly and accurately.
In the review of the 2022 primary election, auditors found no evidence of systematic problems, widespread errors or significant fraud, according to the report. Although auditors say elections are functioning well overall, they identified several “risk areas” that could be strengthened.
Henderson, in a written response to the audit, said she was pleased that auditors found no systemwide problems or fraud.
“Further, the audit found that any bad actors would need to defeat multiple layers of defensive control measures to undermine election integrity in Utah,” Henderson wrote.
Henderson said she agrees in general with all of the recommendations in the audit, some of which the Utah Legislature would have to pass into law and others the lieutenant governor’s office could implement on its own.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he interprets the audit as a “work in progress.”
“The Legislature’s got a fair amount of work to do. There’s a lot of clarity the Legislature hasn’t provided to the lieutenant governor’s office, and that makes it hard to operate in that space,” he said.
An area of improvement noted in the audit involves accounting for all ballots.
The audit found a mismatch between ballots counted and voter credit assigned in 22 counties after the primary election. It also revealed that some counties’ chain-of-custody practices make it difficult to account for all ballots. Auditors did not identify the counties.
“Such discrepancies, when no explanation is provided, create a concern that ballots were either counted without a link to a voter, or that a voter received vote credit but the clerk did not count the ballot,” the report says.
Auditors said they tried to reconcile the discrepancies and had some success, but the processes in some counties do not allow for reconciliation. In one case, a clerical error caused the difference.
In most counties, the deviations were not large, according to the audit. Nine had a difference of five ballots or fewer, and seven counties matched perfectly. The five counties with the largest discrepancies accounted for 88% of the differences.
Dinsdale said auditors didn’t see anything “nefarious” leading to ballots and votes being off. Auditors said the goal would be for ballots and votes to be reconciled or “zero out” after the canvass, meaning every voter has a ballot counted for them or there’s an explanation for why it wasn’t.
County clerks should be able to account for every single ballot or envelope, Henderson said.
Auditors wrote that in light of their findings, a public reconciliation of key ballot processing statistics should be included in any new election rules. The audit notes that Washington state requires a public reconciliation of ballots.
At the end of each election in Washington, counties must report a one-page, high-level summary accounting for all ballots mailed, received and processed. Counties also reconcile total ballots processed to the vote credit given in a central voter database. They also explain any discrepancies in the report.
“We believe that a requirement to publicly report and reconcile ballot statistics — similar to the method used in Washington — would be beneficial and would not require major process change in Utah counties,” auditors wrote.
Wilson agreed, saying a public reconciliation would give voters a “tremendous” amount of confidence in the process.
Other key findings from the audit:
- Utah’s election controls mitigate the risk of fraud as long as they are used properly.
- Mistakes within the voter registration database highlight opportunities for increased oversight.
- Adopting additional post-election audit methods could increase confidence in election processing and outcomes.
- Utah election code does not specify oversight and enforcement roles.
The audit also showed that Utah lacks clear legal standards for election signature verification.
Of the eight states that conduct vote-by-mail elections, seven use signature verification. The audit found that Utah’s guidelines and standards for signature verification are not as clear as those in other states.
County clerks have slightly different assumptions and approaches as to how and when signatures should be accepted and rejected. Some believe that they are looking for reasons to reject signatures, while other counties are looking for reasons to accept. Also, some counties require county election staff to review signatures, while others allow volunteers or other county workers to review them.
The audit recommends that the Legislature create clearer standards in state law or let the lieutenant governor establish the standards and instructions.